2016 “Recruit” Already Having Impact

Cincinnati added 23 new players on National Signing Day last month, but Tommy Tuberville’s biggest recruiting coup this year might have happened a few weeks earlier when he convinced J.B. Grimes to join his coaching staff.

JB Grimes (440x216)

The veteran offensive line coach has more than 30 years of college experience and spent the last three seasons at Auburn. During Grimes’ tenure, the Tigers led the nation in rushing in 2013 and played for a BCS Championship that season. The players he mentored at Auburn included the second pick in the 2014 NFL draft in tackle Greg Robinson, and a Rimington Trophy winner in center Reese Dismukes.

“He’s a typical offensive line coach,” said Tuberville. “He’s about 5’9” and has the voice of a 6’8” guy. That’s the type of guy that it takes to coach offensive lines. I really thrilled to have him. He’s going to be great for the program.”

The question is, how did the Cincinnati head coach lure Grimes away from a traditional SEC power?

“I had a couple of aces in the hole in getting him here,” said Tuberville. “One, I’ve known him all my life. He’s from Arkansas and I’ve followed his career and he’s followed mine. Two, his son Nick is on the staff as a graduate assistant and coaches tight ends and I think that was a lure also. I called him and took a chance that he might be interested. I think Gus (Malzahn) was making some changes at Auburn and bringing some different guys in, and I think it was just perfect timing for us to be able to lure a guy like J.B. here.”

“Coach Tuberville and I have always wanted to work together,” said Grimes. “I’m just a dumb assistant, but he’s been a head coach for 20 years. I’m a career assistant and proud of it. I’ve worked for a lot of football coaches including six or seven Hall of Fame coaches and I’m working for another one now. Tommy Tuberville is a Hall of Fame coach – he’s in the Arkansas Hall of Fame right now. I’ve learned something from everybody that I’ve ever worked for and I’ve always wanted to work for Coach Tuberville. There were other circumstances in the past where life got in the way. But this was a chance to work with a guy that I really like and really respect as a coach, and I also have an opportunity to coach with my son.”

Grimes has coached for Frank Beamer and Lou Holtz among others, and comes with the reputation for being an excellent instructor of offensive line fundamentals.

“He is truly a technique guy,” said Tuberville. “Most guys like to do the ‘Xs and Os’ and don’t like to teach. He’s a true teacher and I needed somebody to come in and get our offensive line technique-sound and that’s what he started to do from day one.”

“Man, I love him,” said junior tackle Korey Cunningham. “I love that he’s hard on us and very precise with every little step we take. I have some friends that played for him at Auburn that said, ‘He’s going to get you to the next level.’ I’ve learned more with him over the last couple of days than I’ve learned in all of my years of playing football. He’s demanding and he’s going to get it out of us.”

At Cincinnati’s fourth spring training practice on Tuesday, it was easy to see that Grimes has a passion for teaching the intricacies of offensive line play.

“We don’t score touchdowns,” said Grimes. “I tell people that if you want to rob a bank, the best place to hide is the offensive line because ain’t nobody going to look for you there. We block people, ya know? There’s nothing romantic or sexy about it. We just have a passion for it if you’re the right kind of guy. I’d like to think that I’m that kind of guy.”

A guy who is arguably Cincinnati’s most important recruit in 2016.

“He’s here to stay and loves to recruit and we’re a little bit behind in some areas on the offensive line,” said Tuberville. “He has really worked hard to try to figure out as quickly as he possibly can what we need. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

“I have no agenda,” said Grimes. “I just want to coach the five guys up front. Let’s get better and go win some football games. That’s all I want to do.”

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Tobin’s Value Is No Mystery

For several years, Bengals fans have recognized the important role that the team’s Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin has played in building one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters.

Duke Tobin at combine (440x293)

But when he stepped to the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday to discuss the Bengals with the national media – the first time he has represented the team that visibly – the initial question was about his role with the franchise.

“Does this mean you’re running the show there?” asked Chris Wesseling from NFL.com.

“No,” replied Tobin. “There’s no sea change. Our operation remains the same. I was asked to come and talk and it’s a scouting event so it’s a natural thing.”

The self-effacing Tobin typically downplays his importance in Cincinnati, but his acumen in evaluating talent is widely respected throughout the NFL. In January, the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans reportedly requested permission to interview Tobin for their general manager openings but he declined to even go through the process.

“It’s flattering, but I knew early on in my job here with the Bengals that this is a place where I wanted to make an entire career,” Tobin said. “I’ve done everything that I could to build myself up within the organization, to add value every year and make that happen. I grew up with a dad who was in Chicago for 18 seasons and he did that for us and for himself and it’s the right thing to do.”

His father Bill is the former general manager of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts and Duke spent his childhood hanging around his dad’s teams.

“That’s really all I did, other than playing sports myself,” Duke told me. “When I had free time I would be up at Halas Hall being a ball boy, or working security, or pulling the nets at games, or just hanging around the locker room. So I grew up around pro football and that’s really all I’ve ever known.”

His father played a critical role in building the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 during the regular season before putting together the most dominant postseason stretch in NFL history. The Bears beat the Giants 21-0 in their first playoff game, added a 24-0 shutout of the Rams in the NFC Championship, and then crushed the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10.

Duke watched that Super Bowl rout from the Bears’ sideline.

“I’ve got great memories of that team,” he said. “They had ability, they had character, and they enjoyed the game. It was more than a job; it was their lifestyle. When I look at players today, those are the guys I compare them to. Those are the guys I’m always trying to find – Walter Payton being the number one. When you grade a guy, that’s kind of the high end of the scale. A lot of those Bears of the ‘80s shaped my opinion of what a football player should be.”

But his ability to judge talent was also shaped by his own football career. Duke was a highly-recruited high school quarterback who began his college career at Illinois where he was a backup to the eventual number one overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft Jeff George.

“It’s humbling throwing next to a guy like that because it shows all of your deficits pretty quick,” Duke said with a laugh. “When I showed up there, it was a little awe-inspiring to watch how the ball came out of his hand. He had one of the strongest arms and quickest releases that I’ve ever seen.”

After two years at Illinois, Tobin transferred to Colorado where he backed up another quarterback who went on to have a long NFL career Kordell Stewart. Both programs reached the Top 10 in the rankings while Duke was on the roster.

“I was fortunate to be on some good college teams and I think for my job right now, that helped me and shaped what I look for,” he said. “Those Illinois teams were good and then when I went to Colorado we had some very fine teams there with a lot of very good players that played in the NFL.”

Despite only starting one college game, Tobin went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League with the Orlando Predators and Memphis Pharaohs.

“We made a little bit of money and they gave us room and board and an automobile to drive, so there were some positives to it,” said Tobin. “We had a good team as well, and I think a lot of college football players don’t admit when it’s over. I probably fell into that bucket and said, ‘Hey, why not give it another year or two?’ I ended up getting hurt, and it wasn’t worth giving up your knee ligament for it for sure. I started scouting soon after that. I realized where my lot was.”

After spending four years as a scout with the Colts, Duke joined the Bengals scouting department in 1999 before becoming director of player personnel in 2002. His father joined the Bengals scouting staff the following year.

So while his 15 minutes at the podium on Thursday should not be interpreted to mean that Duke’s job has changed, it’s unmistakable that he’s happy with his current role in the Bengals front office.

“Loyalty is a two-way street,” said Tobin. “We really enjoy Cincinnati. I wanted to give my kids that same opportunity that my dad gave us to grow up in one place and establish some roots. We’re Cincinnati Bengals and I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do.”

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Newcomer Washington Is Already Leading

When Mick Cronin was sidelined for several months last year due to a health issue, he received well-wishes from all over the country. One of the people that reached out was an opposing player at a game that the UC head coach was unable to attend.

Kyle Washington vs Bearcats (416x440)

“When we played NC State and won,” said Cronin, “I’m talking to Coach Davis on the phone when they’re on their way to the plane and telling him that he did a great job and he said, ‘Hey. Kyle Washington came running over to me when I came out of the locker room to ask me how you’re doing.’ Most teenagers tend to forget about things that don’t include their iPhone or a new pair of shoes and that’s just the type of person that Kyle is. He ran right to Larry and was immediately asking about me.”

The Bearcats had recruited Washington coming out of high school before he elected to play for the Wolfpack. But after starting 43 games over two seasons, the power forward decided to change schools.

“I’m sitting at home watching ESPN and I see on the bottom of the screen that NC State forward Kyle Washington announces that he will transfer,” said Cronin. “There was an immediate scramble to get to Kyle and get him on the phone as soon as I could get his release from NC State. I spent the next three months chasing him because everybody in the country was recruiting Kyle. When you have a 6’10” guy that can shoot the ball, is aggressive, and is a great kid that has no issues and brings nothing but positivity to your program, everybody that had an available scholarship was trying to sign him.”

In early July, Washington announced he would play his final two college seasons at Cincinnati.

“Coach Cronin was the first one to let me know that he wanted to offer me a scholarship coming off of my sophomore year,” Washington told me. “I did have a lot of options, but at this point, it was really about knowing what I had to improve on and Coach is a great defensive mind – he’s a great basketball mind in general. He was letting me know that you need to come here because I can really turn you into a great basketball player. He has taught me so much in the few months that I’ve been here.”

Kyle Washington (440x275)

Washington is practicing with the Bearcats this year before returning to action next season.

“To tell you the truth, it’s OK for me right now because I’m learning so many different things that I had to learn,” said Washington. “On my official visit, Coach Cronin let me know exactly what I could do and he said exactly what I needed to improve on.”

One thing Washington didn’t need to be taught when he got to Cincinnati was how to compete on a daily basis.

“I play with a lot of passion and I never take a day at the D-I level for granted,” said Washington. “A lot of people do, and in our game we should never take that for granted. I’m a high-intensity guy – that’s how I play – and I’m high-intensity off the court too. I just love to play and that’s where that passion comes from.”

“Kyle is a great leader for our team,” said junior Kevin Johnson. “I’ve known him coming up through AAU basketball and he brings energy, effort, and toughness to our team every day. He enjoys the game and has great pride in being a Bearcat now.”

“He’s a very competitive guy,” said sophomore Gary Clark. “When we’re doing drills, we always partner up because he’s always going at me and I’m always going at him. We’re making each other better and he’s pushed me to be more competitive.”

The Bearcats will lose two key big men at the end of the year in seniors Octavius Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry, but they’re confident that Washington will help fill the void next season.

“We know what to expect from him and this is a good process for him,” said Johnson. “He gets a front row seat to all of the games and a front row seat to us as players. He knows how to work with us, and we know how to play with him. I am definitely looking forward to playing with him next year.”

Kyle is already helping the team as a leader.

“We put a lot of time into character development and trying to help guys grow up and get ready for the real world but Kyle Washington doesn’t need a lot of help with that because he has great parents,” said Cronin. “He comes from a great family and is a very polished young person.”

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K-Mart’s Memories Begin With First Practice

When you think of Kenyon Martin’s brilliant career at Cincinnati, what highlight immediately comes to mind?

Kenyon block (440x327)

Is it one of his two triple-doubles? Is it the blocked shot off of Xavier’s Lloyd Price that sailed out of bounds on the opposite end of the court? Is it the game at DePaul when he scored 21 points in the second half to rally the Bearcats from a 17-point deficit? Is it Senior Day when he wiped the tears out of his eyes after a lengthy bear hug with Huggs and scored 23 points in his final home game?

Kenyon’s fondest memory from his Bearcats career will undoubtedly surprise you.

“Probably my first practice,” he told me. “I would say my first practice because of everything that led up to it.”

To understand that answer – and the person that gave it – you have to turn the clock back to the fall of 1996 when Martin was ruled academically ineligible and couldn’t practice or play until January.

“I had to miss the first part of my freshman year because of my test scores and all of that crap that goes on with the NCAA,” said Martin. “So when I finally got to take part in that first practice, I knew that I was going to be able to play college basketball and I was going to make the best of it. It was my opportunity and somebody believed in a kid from Dallas, Texas. That meant the world to me.”

The beginning of his college career came late, and the end of it arrived too soon when Kenyon broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament before being named the National Player of the Year. To this day I marvel at the composure he showed in handling such heartache.

Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin answers questions in the locker room after Cincinnati's 68-58 loss to St. Louis in the Conference USA tournament in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday, March 9, 2000. Martin broke his leg early in the game. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“It was minute compared to the things I had been through leading up to that injury,” said Martin. “Me and my mom being homeless at times and the things we went through as a family – on a scale of life, (the injury) was minute. If I was able to walk again, I was going to play again. I’m a strong-willed person and I don’t get down too easily. That was one of the times that I probably should have been down, but I was just worried about the guys and how they were going to react.”

After rehabbing the injury, Martin was picked first overall in the draft by the New Jersey Nets and embarked on a 15-year NBA career that came to an end last season. He played in the All-Star Game in 2004, and appeared in back-to-back NBA Finals with New Jersey, losing to the Lakers in 2002 and the Spurs in 2003.

Kenyon Nets dunk (440x440)

“I had a great run,” said Martin. “Everybody doesn’t get to win it all and we all know that. There have been some guys on that ‘50 Greatest Players’ list that didn’t win a championship and they get picked on, but I had a great run and I have no regrets. Every day that I stepped on the court I gave it my all.

“If you put your jersey on and stepped on to that court to face me, you knew you were in for a dogfight. I knew no other way to play the game. I came in with that mentality and left with that mentality. That’s still my mentality. I take the game of basketball very, very personally. And when we’re in-between that 94-by-50 feet, everybody can feel it. No one is exempt.”

At the age of 38, Martin now makes his home in California where he is trying to make up for lost time with his family.

“I have three girls and two boys – the oldest is 15,” he told me. “Everything revolves around them which I am more than OK with. I’ve been on the road playing for so many years that I missed out on birthdays, school plays, basketball games, and ballet recitals, so being able to be there now is well worth it.”

He left home this week, along with former teammate Shawn Myrick, to attend the Bearcats’ games against Memphis and Tulane and the practices in-between.

“The players see that Kenyon and Shawn flew here from California because they care about the program, and it helps them realize that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “They see the local guys come around often and that matters, but it really means something when someone of Kenyon’s magnitude comes in from California to spend time with them.”

Kenyon honored (365x440)

And it meant something to Kenyon when he walked on to the court in the first half of the Memphis game and received a lengthy standing ovation.

“It was chills,” said Martin. “I haven’t been on that floor since Senior Day. It’s been a long time coming and it was a great reception. It was a great, great feeling.

“Now that I’m not playing, I’ll be back a lot more.”

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McCarron Looks Ahead After Heroic Effort

As he packed up his locker on Monday, AJ McCarron wore an Alabama sweatshirt and hat. He was obviously looking forward to seeing if his alma mater would beat Clemson later that night for college football’s national championship.

“I’m going to be sitting at the house cheering them on and I can’t wait,” McCarron told me. “It’s an awesome opportunity for those guys and it’s going to be a blast. It’s not nerve-wracking to just sit back and watch the game.”

I’m sure he enjoyed watching ‘Bama win another title, but I’m also certain that McCarron would have rather been preparing for a second round playoff game in New England.

McCarron smoky entrance (440x311)

Statistically, the 25-year-old quarterback did not have a great performance in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, going 23-for-41 for 212 yards and a passer rating of 68.3. But in the fourth quarter with the Bengals trailing 15-0, McCarron calmly directed the team on three straight scoring drives to give Cincinnati a 16-15 lead with 1:50 remaining.

“Heck, a fourth quarter comeback like that?” said Kevin Zeitler. “You can’t say enough about it. He was able to deal with everything that came his way and he was fantastic.”

“I’m proud of him and proud of what he did, and I know he’ll be nothing but better next season and that’s good for us,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s a great feeling when the guys rally around you and everybody believes,” said McCarron. “The whole game when things weren’t going great, guys stayed calm. It’s just a special group that I get to play with and I love every one of them. I had a blast. It was an honor to get to play with them. I know that AD (Andy Dalton) will be back next season, but it was fun.”

And while McCarron came closer to leading the Bengals to a postseason win than Dalton has been able to thus far, the second year quarterback says he has not created a quarterback competition for next season. Dalton led the AFC in passer rating at 106.3 and Cincinnati had a 10-2 record when he broke his thumb.

“This is AD’s team,” McCarron told me. “I am just going to go out and work my tail off and whatever happens happens. But AD is the quarterback and my job is to push him and help make him the best QB that he can be and let the chips fall where they fall. But I support him 100%. I’ve always said that he’s like a big brother to me and I look up to him. That’s the way that it’s going to stay.”

After sitting out his rookie year while rehabbing a shoulder injury, McCarron completed 64% of his passes this season, with 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and a passer rating of 89.7 (including the playoff game). As a result, the Bengals will enter 2016 feeling highly confident about their backup quarterback for the first time in several years.

“The best since 2004 or ’05 with Jon (Kitna) and Carson (Palmer),” said Coach Lewis. “We feel pretty good about things.

“At this point a year ago, we weren’t sure about AJ and his development. We assumed and hoped, and it has worked out.”

Unfortunately, the wild card playoff game didn’t work out, as the Bengals self-destructed in the final two minutes.

“It feels like a bad, bad dream and you’re just waiting for somebody to wake you up,” said McCarron. “It’s tough – especially knowing how hard we’ve worked as a group all season long. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to make it to the playoffs in general. There are a lot of teams that don’t have the opportunity that we had. It hurts, but the only thing we can do is look forward and take each day to get better.”

McCarron in playoff game (440x322)

As impressed as I was by McCarron’s play on Saturday night, I was equally impressed by how he handled himself in his postgame news conference. He sounded like a 10-year veteran as he handled a gut-wrenching loss with class and stressed the importance of his teammates sticking together.

He reiterated that message on Monday.

“When things get tough, it’s easy for people to point fingers and run the opposite way,” AJ told me. “In college we always said, ‘Who do you want in your foxhole?’ You want guys that can have your back and have your six. Who do you want in that hole with you? The worst-case scenario would be for the team to divide and take steps backward.”

There are likely to be significant changes on the Bengals roster and coaching staff next season, and McCarron is eagerly anticipating a major change in his personal life as well. AJ and his wife Katherine are expecting their first child – a son – in late May.

“Raymond Anthony McCarron III and we’re calling him Trip,” he said.

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Just Once

Just once… Can’t we figure out what we keep doin’ wrong. Why the good times never last for long. Where are we goin’ wrong? – From the 1981 song “Just Once” by Quincy Jones and James Ingram.

One minute and 36 seconds left.

The Bengals had the lead and the ball.

The most dramatic playoff win in team history was theirs.

And ours.

After seven straight postseason losses over the course of 25 years, it was total catharsis for the franchise and the city.

“For the 20 seconds after Burfict’s INT, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Bengals fan Ethan Fields in an e-mail. “My heart was fluttering like it was my wedding night and I was on cloud nine.”

The elation actually lasted a little longer than that. From Burfict’s interception to the start of the next play, roughly 90 seconds of real time elapsed.

The agony that followed is going to be remembered for ages.

“Talk about a roller coaster of emotions,” said George Iloka.

In an attempt to run off as much of the clock as possible and force the Steelers to use their three timeouts, the Bengals handed the ball to Jeremy Hill. I honestly believe that every team in the NFL would have done something similar.

But Hill added his name to a list that includes Earnest Byner and Tony Romo for “most costly fumbles in NFL postseason history”.

“I thought I had the ball tucked in there pretty tight, but it came out,” said Hill. “It’s inexcusable.

“I let the fans down, I let the coaches down, and I let my teammates down. It’s on me.”

But not entirely. The Steelers started at their own nine yard line needing to drive roughly 60 yards in 1:23 to give Chris Boswell a shot at a game-winning field goal. Due to his injured shoulder, Ben Roethslisberger was not able to throw the ball deep.

But Big Ben managed to complete five short throws and Pittsburgh drove to the Cincinnati 47-yard line with 22 seconds to go. The Steelers were out of time outs and the Bengals were still in position to win the game.

Cincinnati basically waived a white flag by drawing two yellow ones.

Steelers Bengals Football

A high pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown sailed incomplete, but Vontaze Burfict was penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Brown in the head. Then Adam Jones was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for his heated reaction to trash-talking Steelers coach Joey Porter. Thirty yards in penalties moved the ball to the 17-yard line and Boswell’s 35-yard field goal ended the Bengals season.

“You can’t have stupid penalties at times like that,” said Andy Dalton.

“You’ve got to be poised and you’ve got to keep playing,” said Marvin Lewis. “There are just things that you’ve got to pull away from.”

“That’s what coach has been saying to us all year,” said AJ McCarron. “It’s going to be hard to win games when we can’t control that.”

The NFL Network’s Michael Silver has dubbed it, “The Meltdown at Paul Brown.”

As he faced the media firing squad after the game, Andrew Whitworth was grilled on the Bengals lack of discipline in the final 30 seconds.

“How hard is it to maintain composure in an atmosphere and a game like this?” asked The Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty.

“I think if you have discipline it’s not that hard,” said Whitworth. “You’ve got to be disciplined and understand the ultimate goal.”

“Who does the lack of discipline fall on?” asked CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco.

“I’m a leader so it falls on all of us,” replied Whitworth. “If any of us have let it slip, or if any of us have not let it be important, then it’s all of our mistake. Discipline is something to me that’s taught throughout the year. It’s not a one-time moment thing. It’s an every-day thing. It’s just like raising my kids. Discipline is something that I have to be consistent every single day with. I have to be consistent on things that are important, and as a leader of the football team it’s the same thing.”

“At the end of the day you’ve got to keep your cool,” said Dalton.

The late collapse negated an incredible comeback. Down by 15 points to begin the fourth quarter, the Bengals scored on three straight possessions and took the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green with 1:56 remaining.

Green playoff TD vs Steelers (440x301)

“Everybody was so calm on that last possession,” said McCarron. “It was kind of creepy. It was like everybody has ice water in their veins. Everybody was calm and thinking that we were going to go and make a freaking play.”

“I’m just proud of AJ man,” said Whitworth. “AJ McCarron came in in a tough role – to take on a team that is a contender and have to stand in there and figure everything out in the manner that he had to do it. It wasn’t going to be clean, it wasn’t going to be pretty, we knew things were going to be ugly at times, but the kid just went about it with every bit of effort that he had. I couldn’t be more proud of him for that.”

Instead of getting credit for his first 4th quarter comeback as an NFL quarterback, McCarron watched helplessly as Roethlisberger recorded his 38th.

“This one just really sucks,” said McCarron. “We were so close to bringing this city what it deserves – especially against Pittsburgh. I’m at a loss for words.”

“I can’t fathom it right now,” said Iloka. “It’s déjà vu. It literally feels like yesterday we were having the same talk about losing in the playoffs. Maybe it feels like yesterday because we’ve had this conversation four times. It’s frustrating.”

The Bengals started the season 8-0 for the first time in team history. They finished the regular season 12-4 to tie the franchise’s best record in a 16-game season. Instead of celebrating an AFC North title and what should have been Cincinnati’s first postseason win in 9,135 days, they will face the same old question for at least another year: Why can’t you win a first round playoff game?

“Guys work hard man,” said Iloka. “From top to bottom, everybody in this organization works hard and I don’t know how we keep losing every year to teams that quite frankly don’t have more talent than us. This is a really talented team in terms of athletes and weapons. We’re stacked and the fact that we keep losing in the first round – I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t have the answers. I really don’t.”

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“The Journey Is Just Beginning”

Last Tuesday at noon, just seven hours after the Bengals got back from a physically and emotionally draining loss at Denver, Marvin Lewis sat down with Dave Lapham and me to tape his weekly TV show.

Marvin cold night (440x302)

It was roughly the 80th time we’ve recorded “Bengals Weekly” together and I saw something that I had never seen on the show before – Coach Lewis getting choked up.

It happened when Lap ended our interview segment with the following question: “At this stage of the season, what are you most proud of about your football team?”

“How hard they play and how disappointed we are when we come up short,” Marvin said as his eyes watered a bit. “It’s hurts them. And then they come back to work, tighten their resolve, put their heads down and work harder.”

That’s a coach that is proud of what he’s built in Cincinnati, and Marvin Lewis has every right to be.

While the 2015 Bengals will ultimately be judged on whether they can end the franchise’s 24-season drought without a playoff win, the players and coaches deserve a ton of credit for putting themselves back into a position to do something about it.

The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs in two of the last three years. If the Jets had won on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have missed the postseason for the third time in four years. The Buffalo Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 years. In other words, getting there is not a given.

But for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years, the Bengals are one of 12 teams to make it through the regular season meat grinder and still have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

“This is just our first step,” said Coach Lewis. “That’s what our guys know. The journey is just beginning.”

“The playoffs are a brand new season and I think everybody realizes that you have to be at your best,” said Kevin Zeitler.

McCarron vs Ravens (440x293)

The Bengals might not be at their best next week unless Andy Dalton makes a remarkably fast recovery from a broken thumb. The question is, will they still be good enough to win? In his three starts since Dalton’s injury, AJ McCarron has four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.1. If he continues to avoid turnovers, the Bengals defense will keep them in any playoff game that the second-year quarterback starts.

“We didn’t execute everything the right way, but the good thing is that we won,” said McCarron after Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. “It’s not always going to be roses, but we fought hard and we got the win.”

Cincinnati is 2-1 in AJ’s three starts, but the Bengals’ confidence in their young quarterback might have grown the most from the only one he lost – the overtime thriller in Denver.

“That was a pressure-packed night,” said Lewis. “So that was a huge step in his development to go through something like that where every play was win-or-lose on each and every snap. There was a lot of tension, and he was able to stay calm through that, deliver the football, run the offense, and make good decisions.”

So now, we begin what is going to feel like the longest week in history. I promise you that the days are going to crawl as we eagerly anticipate the third and final showdown this year in what’s become one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh.

“It’s going to be a fun game,” said Tyler Eifert. “Obviously this rivalry has heated up in recent years – especially this year. It will be an awesome atmosphere here at Paul Brown.”

“We know that they’re one of the best teams in the league,” said Coach Lewis. “So if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

For Michael Johnson, the opponent at this point doesn’t matter.

“Whoever we’ve got to play, put the ball down and let’s get after it,” Johnson told me. “Whoever. Wherever.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals D Sets Up Showdown In Denver

In Sunday’s 24-14 win at San Francisco, the Bengals averaged a paltry 1.9 yards on their 36 rushes, converted a mere 4 of 14 third down opportunities (29%), and had to punt a season-high eight times.

“We wanted it to be pretty, you know?” said Marvin Jones with a laugh.

In this case it was substance over style.

Playing for the first time in 82 games without Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Bengals relied on a ball-hawking defense and Kevin Huber’s booming left leg to methodically beat the 49ers.

“We knew coming into this game that defense was going to be key with AJ (McCarron) making his first start,” said Domata Peko. “They say a quarterback’s best friend is running the ball and a good defense so we were really trying to elevate our level of play. Thank God that we did.”

Dunlap recovers fumble (440x313)

The Bengals defense finished with four takeaways including a fumble that was forced and recovered by Carlos Dunlap midway through the second quarter. It gave the Bengals the ball at the San Francisco 11-yard-line and led to a one yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill.

“That’s something we needed,” said Jones. “We were off to a slow start.”

“(Carlos) is known for doing that type of stuff,” said Peko. “Hawking fools down. Hawking receivers and running backs down and stripping the ball. That was a big play defensively. We needed something to get us going and Carlos did that.”

On San Francisco’s next drive, a “shank you very much” 18-yard-punt by Bradley Pinion led to Hill’s second short TD. On the 49ers following possession, an interception by Vontaze Burfict set up a 20-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to rookie tight end Tyler Kroft.

“It was awesome,” said Kroft after his first NFL TD. “It was kind of everything I dreamed of. They sent pressure and AJ and I knew that I was the hot read on that play so it worked out like it was supposed to.”

After sputtering on their first five drives, the Bengals scored three touchdowns in less than five minutes.

“It took us a little while to get our footing, but when we needed to put points on the board we did it,” said Kroft.

McCarron vs San Fran (440x307)

McCarron did exactly what the Bengals asked him to, completing 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards with 1 TD and 0 INT for a passer rating of 115.6.

“The biggest difference in the football game is that Blaine Gabbert had three interceptions and AJ didn’t have any,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham.

“He was cool, calm, and collected,” said Kroft. “Everything that you want in a quarterback.”

“I think he did a great job,” said Hill. “He didn’t turn the all over and that was huge.”

Taking care of the ball was enough to beat San Francisco, but the offense is likely going to have to be far more effective next week in Denver. A win would clinch the AFC North and give the Bengals a first-round bye in the playoffs.

“This is going to be a huge game for us and everybody knows that,” said Jones.

“It feels awesome that we’re in the dance for the fifth time in a row,” said Peko. “But we’re looking to do some damage this year and go further than we’ve ever been. We’re trying to get the ring.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Lose Passer And Poise

The Cincinnati Bengals played their first 10 games of the season without having to put a member of the opening day roster on injured reserve. Through 12 games, the only player to suffer a season-ending injury since the start of the year was Darqueze Dennard.

In other words, the Bengals had been incredibly fortunate in terms of injuries heading into Sunday’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh. But the odds caught up to them in Game 13.

“One thing about this league man, to get to that Super Bowl you’ve got to have some luck on your side,” said A.J. Green. “We had some bad breaks today.”

Dalton in cast (440x248)

In this case, the “break” was literal as the Bengals lost the player they could least afford to lose with a fractured thumb.

“It sucks about Andy,” said Kevin Zeitler. “It’s very unfortunate. It was a great play by the Steelers down there and Andy went to prevent the return and stuff happens.”

At this point, we don’t know how long quarterback Andy Dalton is going to be out. Additionally, the Bengals best cornerback Adam Jones missed the game with an injured foot, and the NFL co-leader in touchdowns, tight end Tyler Eifert, exited with a concussion.

“We’ve got to circles the wagons and stay positive,” said Michael Johnson. “If the injured guys have to be out for a while, we’ll have to have other guys step up. We’re built for this.”

In the NFL, you had better be. This season, the list of star quarterbacks who have missed considerable time due to injury includes Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Andrew Luck. Dalton had started 81 consecutive games, a record for a Bengals quarterback, and was having his best season with 25 TD passes, 7 interceptions, and a passer rating of 106.2.

“It’s so frustrating and I feel bad for him,” said Zeitler. “He’s been playing great and he’s been a great leader this year. He’s been doing everything he had to do, but it is what it is. We need McCarron to step up, we have talent in this room, and we’ve got to get through it.”

McCarron vs Steelers (440x294)

AJ McCarron did not appear overwhelmed against the Steelers as he went 22-for-32 for 280 yards, with 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and a passer rating of 90.6.

“I thought he did great,” said Green. “To be thrown in the fire like that against the Pittsburgh Steelers who are playing out of their minds right now, I thought he handled it well. The stage didn’t seem too big for him, he commanded the huddle very well, and I think when we get back to work this week and he gets some more reps with the ones, I think he’ll be fine.”

“AJ did not take one snap with the first string offense last week,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He was Ben Roethlisberger at practice and ran Pittsburgh’s plays all week. So I tip my cap to him for how he did. He wasn’t happy obviously and was lamenting the two interceptions but that’s how competitive he is.”

“AJ can play – it’s not a secret,” said Johnson. “I expected him to come in and play well and he did. He’ll get more comfortable with more practice time if he has to be in there and hopefully Andy will make a speedy recovery.”

In the meantime, the Bengals next three opponents are San Francisco, Denver, and Baltimore. This weekend, they lost by a combined score of 74-28. Their starting quarterbacks were all backups at the beginning of the season: Blaine Gabbert, Brock Osweiler, and Jimmy Clausen.

“We’ll have a week to prepare with AJ (McCarron) and we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get that chemistry down as fast as we can,” said Green.

“We’ll be fine,” said Johnson. “The main thing is to do what we need to do to keep it a family and stay tight.”

“We’ve got to get ready for San Fran because we can’t get stuck on this,” said Zeitler. “We’ve got to finish strong.”

As bleak as things seemed at the end of the loss to Pittsburgh, the Bengals will clinch at least a wild card playoff berth with a win next week at San Francisco. And regardless of what happens the next two weeks, Cincinnati would win the AFC North by beating Baltimore in the final game of the regular season. The Bengals would also capture the division by winning two of their last three games, or winning one game coupled with a Pittsburgh loss or tie.

**********

In addition to losing their quarterback on Sunday, the Bengals frequently lost their poise. There were numerous skirmishes throughout the game, beginning with the pregame shoving match between Vontaze Burfict and Vince Williams – the Steelers linebacker that had threatened him on Twitter.

“I was shocked, I guess, at the beginning,” said Zeitler. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“It was one of the least-poised games that I’ve ever been a part of and that was disappointing,” said Johnson. “We have to be better than that. We talked about it all week and they came in and got us to do exactly what they wanted us to do – and that’s get into all of that crap and not focus on playing between the whistles. You can see the outcome.”

“Guys lost their poise sometimes,” said Green. “That’s when you have to channel all of that stuff because you can’t fight on the field. So why get into it? Just go back out there and play the next play.”

“It was a tough, physical game,” added Zeitler. “What else do you expect from Bengals/Steelers?”

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The Game To Match His Name

The first time I met A.J. Green was boarding a bus at Paul Brown Stadium before my first game as the team’s radio announcer. The Bengals were headed to the airport for the 2011 preseason opener in Detroit and since I was still broadcasting games for the Pawtucket Red Sox at that time, I had not been able to attend training camp.

So I pounced on the opportunity to introduce myself to the Bengals number one draft pick and in the course of our conversation I asked, “What does A.J. stand for?”

“Adriel Jeremiah,” he replied.

What a majestic-sounding name I thought.

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Following Sunday’s 37-3 win over Cleveland, it occurred to me how fortunate we are to watch A.J. Green every week.

Green TD at Cleveland (382x440)

We’ve been blessed in Cincinnati to have some of the greatest players in sports history spend much of their careers here: Oscar Robertson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey Jr., Anthony Munoz, and Ken Anderson to name a few. While it’s too early to rank Green among the NFL’s all-time greats, the numbers suggest that he is headed in that direction.

With his 128 receiving yards against the Browns, A.J. joined Randy Moss as the second receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons.

Additionally, Green is currently on a pace to finish the season with 93 receptions. If he increases that slightly and ends the year with 98 or more, he’ll break Larry Fitzgerald’s record for most catches by an NFL player in his first five years.

“I’m just having fun out here with my teammates,” said Green. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Winning is fun. It’s the first time that I’ve been a part of a 10-2 team and it feels great. It motivates you to get better each week.”

In the Green/Dalton era, the Bengals now have twice as many wins (50) as losses (25) during the regular season.

“They’ve been joined at the hip which is so fun and so cool about them,” said Marvin Lewis. “They’re everything you want in every way. They’re great role models and they’re great leaders for the rest of the football team.”

“We came in together and how we’ve grown over the last five seasons is unbelievable,” said Green.

**********

The 27-year-old receiver is not one to boast, but even he had to admit that his third quarter Baryshnikov-like toe-tap catch at the one yard line was a thing of beauty.

“It’s always a good highlight when you get that toe tap and fall out of bounds,” said Green with a grin. “So that was a good one.”

A.J. says that he had a little extra motivation in making the grab – he didn’t want to get criticized by wide receivers coach James Urban.

“The last couple of years I have been out of bounds by a heel a few times so I knew that I needed to get my toes down so that ‘Urb’ won’t yell at me,” Green told me. “This time I got my toes down so that was good.”

Yes, the four-time Pro Bowler is not beyond trying to please his coaches.

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Green taking field (440x293)

When the Bengals selected Green with the fourth pick in the 2011 draft, I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Don’t get me wrong, I had no doubt that A.J. could be a terrific player, but I questioned the wisdom of drafting a receiver that high.

I have rarely been so happy to be so wrong.

His game is as majestic as his name.

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